The recent publication of my book ‘Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story‘ has opened up an interesting debate about the “war on drugs,” undercover policing and related issues.
This is the first in a series of articles about that debate and some other issues raised by reviews of my book.
What does the War on Drugs, an Undercover Cop and the Philippines have in common?
There is a certain irony in a British ex-undercover cop living in the Philippines. He went undercover on one of the world’s largest drug busts, Operation Julie, and now advocates decriminalization along the lines of the example set by Portugal. Social media is inundated with #warondrugs hashtags associated with President Duterte of the Philippines; all critical messages aimed at changing drug policy and stopping alleged extra-judicial killings.
The irony is clear to me as I am that former undercover cop. Some force is also lent to the irony when you learn that I was also a London- based criminal defence barrister. I believe in the rule of law.
The people who inhabit this archipelago of some seven thousand islands are among some of the friendliest, hard-working peoples on this planet. Many of them live in difficult conditions. Many live in makeshift shanty homes with no running water nor electricity. Poverty sits jowl by jowl alongside affluence. The curse of shabu not only has caused devastation among its users but has created a culture of corruption involving the highest tiers of Philippines society. Duterte wants to stop it. The overwhelming majority of the populace back him.
President Rodrigo Duterte is a “street fighter” type of politician. He does not mince words and is a man of action. The people love him because he does not act out of motives of self-aggrandisement but wants to see a better future for this wonderful, beautiful country. The “war on drugs” is not the only issue he has to deal with. The terrorist threat from the mountain hideouts of the Islamic Abu Sayyaf is a real one. Then there is the infrastructure and that is a story in itself, suffice to say that Filipinos deserve an infrastructure that means there are less brownouts, better roads and a faster, more reliable internet service to mention a few issues.
These people are from stupid, they know their new President is not perfect but he is a breath of fresh air to them promising to sweep away the influence of the oligarchs. Almost to a man and woman, they are relishing that prospect and who can blame them. Go study the history of this country! They also want you, the foreigner to butt out. They resent the interference in domestic affairs especially when it is based on ignorance of the true facts.
And what are the true facts? It is difficult to know. One thing is clear – there appears to be an orchestrated campaign against this democratically elected President. The people behind this campaign are no doubt those most affected by the loss of influence and privilege they enjoyed before Duterte was swept to power. Many lesser personalities would wilt in the face of these opponents, not this president. He is clearly on a mission to conduct a root and branch reform of the worst aspects of corruption Filipino style.
Discovering the truth in this country is no easier than it is in many others. Yet, the people here know that many of the allegations about extra-judicial killing are untrue. They know that many of those killings have been carried out by rival drug lords eliminating the competition. It is no help that the situation is often misreported. Misleading headlines are common place and only today the BBC reported under a headline “Philippines President Duterte ‘once killed man with Uzi.’” What followed was an account of testimony by a self-confessed former death squad member in a Senate inquiry on extra-judicial killings. His evidence implicated Duterte, in his former role as Mayor of Davao, in several killings including targeting the body guards of a former political rival. It was interesting to note the son of this rival challenged the account relating to his father’s bodyguards. He was reported as saying, “I don’t know what this guy [the witness] is talking about.”
The conflicts unmasked in the power struggle make Machiavelli look like Bambi. The Senate inquiry is led by Leila de Lima, a strong critic of President Duterte, and has been accused by him of having links to the illegal drug trade, something she denies. However, a Senate panel is currently tasked with investigating these complaints.
It is a pity that all these drug-related issues are diverting resources away from other serious matters such as the ISIS influenced Abu Sayyaf terrorist movement in the far south of the Philippines, the economy, the Spratley Island spat with China and of course the infrastructure.
The anti-“war on drugs” movement certainly has a valid point about the waste of lives and resources. If asked, I would suggest the President, his advisors and the good people of the Philippines study closely all the literature about Portugal’s decriminalization program.
They may learn that the focus must be on the health of users; users are not subjected to the criminal justice system but traffickers in narcotics are still liable to criminal sanctions. Some advocate for regulation of the market in drugs in the same way alcohol is regulated. Some of those pro-regulation proponents include law enforcement officers; one of them is another former Brit undercover cop. I remain to be convinced of that option. He (the former cop) pointed me to a website to assist in my research into regulation. I am compelled to say that his argument is not enhanced by terms such as “nuanced regulation.” What does that mean?
Let’s not get carried away by the rush to decriminalize and regulate drugs. There is a tendency by the drug regulation lobby to brush aside one essential truth about drugs. They can be, and often are, harmful. Having said that, the continuance of the “war on drugs” is a busted flush. No country in the world better typifies that than here in the Philippines.